An Adirondack Hero
by Kathleen Hanna
“As kids, we didn’t need Hollywood’s Clint Eastwood types as our heroes—we had them right here, sat on their laps and listened to incredible stories. We worshiped our Rangers, like Grandpa,” recalls Pat Cunningham, of North Creek.
In 1911 his grandfather, Patrick James “P. J.” Cunningham, was appointed as one of the first Adirondack District Forest Rangers, a post he held until age 69, in 1940. At Cunningham’s retirement party at the Wells House, in Pottersville, Governor Herbert H. Lehman praised him as being “one of the pioneers of conservation. During his very long service, which has been exceeded by few men, he helped develop the State’s policy of protecting its natural resources…. He has been a loyal, hard working and public-spirited servant of the State who has gained the respect of the public and his fellow workers.”
Cunningham was born in 1871 on a Chestertown farm to Irish immigrants, John and Mary Cunningham, who came north with son John after the Civil War, settled and had seven more children. Young P. J. walked barefoot with shoes slung over his shoulder to a schoolhouse on the outskirts of town so he could save his only pair for school, church and holidays. Money and food were scarce and the land unforgiving. He learned to live by his wits, growing into a skilled fisherman and hunter who loved exploring the landscape. Granddaughter Mary Moro, of North Creek, reminisces, “He could describe exactly how to get anywhere by explaining tree and rock landmarks, just as a New Yorker would give directions to the subway by noting streets and avenues.”
As a sturdy 14-year-old, P. J. joined a building crew for W. W. Durant’s Pine Knot, the prototype of many legendary Great Camps. He worked in the lumber and guiding trades, and, in the late-1880s, served a stint on the Verplanck Colvin Survey. He then met and courted Kathleen Butler at Aiden Lair, a Newcomb hunting lodge, where his bride-to-be lived with her sister Lillian and brother-in-law Mike Cronin. (In the wee hours of September 14, 1901, Cronin was the driver who dashed Teddy Roosevelt by buckboard on the third leg of his famous journey down Mount Marcy to the North Creek Depot. On that platform, T. R. learned he would soon become the 26th President of the United States.) P. J. and Kathleen were married in 1902.
After settling in Long Lake, P. J. ran a mail-boat service, captained a steamboat, then managed the Adirondack Hotel. He enjoyed simple pleasures, such as Kathleen’s suppers of venison, potatoes and rice pudding. Their family grew as they welcomed sons John, in 1903, and Butler, in 1904.
But by 1906 Kathleen had become tired of the hotel business, so the Cunninghams moved to North Creek. The devastating fires of 1903 and 1908, which destroyed more than 832,000 acres, spurred Governor Charles Evans Hughes to establish a new Fire Patrol service in 1909 that employed P. J. as one of its first patrolmen. Back then the Forest, Fish and Game Commission (later the Conservation Department) annual reports seldom mentioned individual accomplishments. But the 1909 report stated that “P. J. Cunningham on Sunday, August 15, checked a threatening fire on State land by using dynamite to blow up the deep duff in which it was burning, seven dollars worth of dynamite doing the work of forty men.”
In 1911 P. J. became a forest ranger, supervising District #2, which included Warren County, southern Essex County and large portions of Hamilton and Washington Counties. He fought fires, managed fire prevention, directed a ranger staff in the field and oversaw the construction of 15 fire towers and the laying of 150 miles of telephone lines to them. He also trained tower observers, educated visitors, cut trails, constructed campsites and built lean-tos.
At first, the only way to monitor his vast district—from Glens Falls to the top of Mount Marcy and all the way to Forked Lake—was by train or horse and wagon. When Model Ts were distributed to the five district forest rangers in 1915, P. J.’s new ride allowed him to cover his territory at a faster clip.
Molly McGuire, granddaughter of the ranger’s colleague Charlie Barnes, mentioned P. J.’s calm, reassuring demeanor in a 1939 letter TO WHOM: “Pat received a telephone call one night from an excited man who said a fire was burning on the top of a mountain in the Blue Ridge country. Weather conditions were such that Pat was definitely skeptical, but he knew the man to be sober. The cause of the “fire” suddenly dawned on him. He told the man to call back in a half-hour. ‘You were right,’ the man said rather sheepishly, ‘It was the full moon coming up through the trees.”
In 1918 P. J. and Kathleen opened the Cunningham General Store, in North Creek, beside today’s Tannery Pond Community Center. The family lived upstairs and P. J. made space downstairs, in the store, for his ranger office. The couple ran the business until the Depression so strapped them financially, that son Butler had to come home from Union College. He took over as the store manager. (Years later, in 1935, Butler would start selling skis—early versions made from barrel staves—poles, boots and outerwear at the general store. This venture prospered into Cunningham’s Ski Barn which Pat, Butler’s son, operates today.)
Patrick James Cunningham passed away in 1952. He set impeccable standards for future generations of rangers. Recalling his grandfather’s reverence for the Adirondack wilderness, Pat says, “Grandpa always went into the woods with a topcoat on.”